Raw oysters get a little bit of help from hot sauce


January 16, 1994|By ROB KASPER

As a raw oyster eater I experiment with toppings. Sometimes I squirt some lemon juice on the raw oysters. Sometimes some horseradish. Sometimes nothing.

When I heard about researchers who found that sprinkling hot sauce on raw oysters clobbered bacteria, I wanted to learn more about this report. And I wanted to give the hot sauce routine a try.

One thing I learned quickly. Nobody was claiming that a few shakes of hot sauce on a raw oyster automatically made the oyster safe for everyone to eat. Rather, a pair of Louisiana researchers found that hot sauce had wiped out bacteria on the surface of the raw oyster meat. However, most of the bacteria that matters are not on the surface of the oyster. They are deeper in the oyster meat, in the critter's stomach, where a few dollops of hot sauce are unlikely to penetrate. So scientifically speaking, the main reason you would put hot sauce on a raw oyster would be because you liked the taste.

This is not a finding that is going to shake the halls of learned societies. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my journey into the science of hot sauce and oysters.

It began in Louisiana, a state that has lots of oysters and lots of hot sauce. Two doctors at the Louisiana State University Medical Center, Charles V. Sanders and Kenneth Aldridge, looked into how the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria found in oysters got along with hot sauce. They outlined their findings last fall at a New Orleans conference sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology.

Vibrio resides in an oyster's digestive tract. When a raw oyster is eaten, vibrio sometimes causes minor discomfort among healthy people but can be deadly to people with deficient immune systems. The bacteria are killed by cooking.

Dr. Sanders, chairman of internal medicine at LSU, said in a telephone interview that he had long wondered whether the condiments that Louisianians traditionally put on raw oysters had any effects on bacteria. So he, along with Dr. Aldridge, a professor of medicine at LSU, ran an experiment. Dr. Sanders told me he and his colleague "mixed sauce with organisms, . . . incubated the mixture, . . . looked at the low pH."

What I got from this short telephone seminar was that when vibrio bacteria and hot sauce tangle, the bacteria lose. Dr. Sanders did not seem to be claiming much more. He called the experiment preliminary, and said while it raised interesting questions it "did not prove anything."

Then I called the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry trade group located outside Washington, to see if it had heard of the hot sauce study. They had, but rather than telling everyone to sprinkle hot sauce on oysters and rejoice, the industry group was urging caution. A spokeswoman for the industry said she was worried the limited finding of the Louisiana study would be misinterpreted by the popular press. Since this is a group I count myself a member of, I next called a University of Florida researcher to get a deeper understanding of the hot sauce effect.

Mark Tamplin of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences turned out to be both professionally and personally familiar with raw oysters. He studied them and he ate them.

He talked to me about digestive tracts, the one in the oyster and the one in humans. Tamplin was the one who told me that most of the bacteria were found in the oyster's stomach. Sprinkling hot sauce on a raw oyster might clean bacteria from the surface of the meat, he said. But the only way for hot sauce to get to the bulk of the bacteria, in the oyster's stomach, he said, would be to marinate the meat in the sauce for several days.

The acid in hot sauces and in lemon juice and horseradish do clobber the bacteria, he said. But he added that for most people, "the acid in our stomachs does a better job."

Tamplin said he preferred to put horseradish on the raw oysters that he eats. He told how a few weeks earlier he had traveled to New Orleans to eat oysters with some hot-sauce-loving Louisianians. He said he had tried but couldn't keep pace with his friends, he said. Their sauced-up oysters were too fiery for him.

After all the phone calls and note-taking, I got to the part of the raw oyster-hot sauce story I liked, the on-site testing.

The other morning I went to a raw bar, Faidley's Seafood in Baltimore's Lexington Market, and had three raw oysters for breakfast. I had horseradish on one. Hot sauce on another. And nothing on the third. I preferred the naked oyster. But it is matter of taste, not science.

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